Helga lifted the cigarette to her chapped lips and inhaled the nicotine into her lungs, trapping the smoke momentarily in her mouth and then blowing it upwards in a perfect ring. Dark clouds scuttled across the sky, and the wind cut through her apron and khakis. She sighed, leaning her old frame against the back of the restaurant as she flicked the ash from her cigarette with a gnarled finger. She missed her father every day, but the holidays were especially hard. Although she wasn't particularly religious, she believed they would be reunited one day.
The hinges of the back door screeched as it abruptly flew open. “Helga, you got tables!” yelled her boss, an anxious woman named Liz who was half Helga’s age.
“I’m coming,” Helga said. She stabbed out the butt on the wall and tossed it into the dumpster, then forced her sore feet to take her inside.
“I understand you're tired, you've worked six straight doubles, but we're short staffed and the food ain't gonna serve itself,” Liz griped.
Helga smiled at the thought of pulled pork sandwiches marching from the kitchen and jumping onto the tables.
“We're out of chicken breasts!” shouted Harold, a scatterbrained cook with tattoos crawling up his neck.
“Are you kidding me?! I told you to tell me when we were getting low!” Liz screamed back as she barreled through the kitchen to face Harold. The other servers moved quickly to avoid her path or pretended to be busy prepping food.
Harold shrugged his shoulders.
“Do not stress, Liz,” Helga said in a thick Eastern European accent. “It will all work out. It always does.”
Liz paused, then shook her head and returned to her office to order more chicken for the following week. It was the holiday season, and the last thing she wanted to deal with was disappointed customers.
“It will all work out. It always does,” she mocked under her breath. She didn't have the patience for Harold's incompetence or Helga's platitudes. If she wasn't in such dire need of staff, she would have let them both go. Little did she know, Helga had already planned to leave town at the end of her shift.
Helga greeted a couple sitting in a booth who were both studying financial reports on their phones.
“Good evening, my name is Hel...”
“We know what we want,” the woman said without looking up. “I'll have a Diet Coke and water, and he'll have an Arnold Palmer. You know what that is, don't you? Iced tea and lemonade.”
“Yes, yes I know.”
“I didn’t know if they have that where you’re from. Where are you from?”
“A few blocks away, actually.”
“No, I meant originally,” the woman emphasized the last word as she continued staring at her phone.
“I’ve lived in many places, but I spent most my life in Sofia, Bulgaria, not far from the border of Serbia and North Macedonia. You know where that is, don’t you?”
The woman looked up from her phone, then pointed to an item on the menu. “Uh, I'll take the barbecue chicken breast and he'll have the ribs. Can you bring us some of those honey rolls, too?”
“We're out of the chicken breast, I'm afraid. I just found out.”
The woman threw her hands up in the air. “Oh my God, do you believe this?”
The man shook his head.
“The catfish is good,” Helga said. “They get them fresh from the fishermen down by the docks.”
“Eh, if I wanted fish, I'd go to a fish place, not...oh never mind, fine I'll take the fish.”
“You won't regret it,” Helga said.
“I better not!” the woman muttered, and returned to her phone.
While Helga was putting in their order, the hostess sat a family of four in her section. Helga dropped off the drinks to the couple on her way to the table.
“Where’s Jenny?” asked a gray-haired man in a sweater vest with a big smile on his face.
“Her daughter's sick, so she had to stay home. She asked me to cover her shift tonight.”
The man’s smile immediately fell into a frown.
“He comes here every week to see her,” his wife said. “She's been our waitress for years. She always remembers our order.”
“Let me guess: one steak sirloin cooked medium with a loaded baked potato and caesar salad, one salmon salad, no onions, with balsamic vinaigrette on the side, and two grilled cheeses with fruit bowls for the kids?”
“How did you...” the man looked at Helga in disbelief, then perked up. “Jenny told you, didn't she!”
Helga’s wrinkled face cracked into a smile, exposing her tar-stained teeth. “Do not worry, she will be back tomorrow. Her daughter is gonna be alright, I promise you that.”
Helga typed in the family's order at the kiosk, then delivered the fish and ribs to the couple.
“Be careful, the plates are hot,” she said, her calloused hands gently setting the plates down in front of them.
From there she greeted a middle-aged woman in a black dress sitting alone at a high-top table. Helga dropped a bev nap, and asked her if she wanted anything to drink.
“No problem, I'll get you a glass.”
“No, a bottle!”
“Of course, I understand.”
“I doubt that,” the woman sighed. “It's been one hell of a week.”
“Tell me about it,” Helga said, shifting from one aching foot to the other and thinking back on her week of double shifts.
The woman took it as an invitation. “Well first, my car broke down on Highway 18, then I found out I'm being laid off at work. On top of that, my best friend decides to up and die, leaving me completely alone. I just came from the funeral home. We used to come here together, so I thought I'd...” She trailed off, her eyes filling with tears. “I'm sure you don't have time to listen to my sob story,” she said.
“Sometimes you have to make time for the important things.”
“I know everything seems bad right now, but it'll get better. It always does. I'll be back with your wine soon.”
As Helga turned, she saw the hostess seat a party of six at a big table in the corner.
“Good heavens,” she said under her breath. She swung by the bar and shouted out the wine order.
Cole, the bartender, stopped filling a pint glass mid-pour, grabbed a bottle of red wine from the shelf, and placed it on the counter for her.
“Thank you, sweetie,” Helga said, grabbing the bottle and a wine glass.
“Anytime for you,” Cole said, as he filled the rest of the pint glass and stuck an orange wedge on the rim.
Most of the servers complained about Cole being slow with their drink orders, but ever since Helga kicked out two homophobic patrons who were harassing him, he always had her orders ready quickly.
Helga dropped off the bottle of wine, checked on her other tables, then welcomed the table of six.
“Looks like you're coming from church,” she said, noticing their Bibles on the table.
“Yes, we just came from a revival service. Evangelist J.D. Mortimer really brought the word tonight,” gushed the man sitting at the head of the table. “He'll be there all week. You should come.”
“I'd love to, but I won't be around this week.”
“That's too bad, you're missing out.” The man’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“What did he talk about?” asked Helga.
Another man piped up. “He shared incredible stories of preaching the gospel to the lost in prison. Murderers. Criminals. Gang leaders. You name it. He told them all about Jesus.”
“He said, ‘You think prison is bad, hell is a hundred times worse.’ They gave their lives to Jesus right there on the spot. Salvation is the greatest gift you can give someone. That's what Evangelist Mortimer says.”
“Sometimes people just need to know you care. That you really see them. There’s nothing more holy than that,” Helga said.
The men grew quiet, then looked down at their menus.
“Can you bring us six waters with lemon, and a basket of your rolls?” said the man at the head of the table curtly. “I think we need some time to look over the menus.”
Helga checked in on her tables on the way to get the rolls and waters.
“You were right about the fish,” said the woman at the two-top. “This is the best fish I've ever had.”
“I knew you'd like it.”
The family of four were devouring their meal and the grieving friend was halfway through her bottle of wine.
Helga went to the beverage station, where a fellow server was breaking down.
“What's wrong, Denise?”
“I've gotten stiffed by two tables tonight.”
“I'm sorry, dear.”
“My rent's due tomorrow, too. I don't know what's going on, usually I rake it in during the holidays.”
“It's revival week,” Helga said plainly. “This town is too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.”
“Here.” Helga slipped Denise two twenty-dollar bills.
“No, I can't take this. It's yours. You've been working all day!” Denise cried.
“I'll be okay. Take it.”
Denise threw her arms around Helga and hugged her tightly. Helga pulled away quickly, smiling. “Alright, alright. I better go before my tables get restless.”
“Six waters with lemon,” she said, as she set the glasses on the table one by one.
“Where are the rolls?” one of the church men asked.
“Seems I forgot.”
The man rolled his eyes.
“Can I get your food orders?”
“We're just having the water and rolls. Evangelist Mortimer challenged us to sacrifice a meal and give the money to support his prison ministry. So we're just having bread and water, like the prisoners.”
“I see. I'll bring them right out.”
Helga dropped off the rolls, then stood back and watched her tables. For a few brief minutes, everyone was taken care of so she took the opportunity to rest. Her feet and joints were aching from standing up all day.
“Don't just stand around,” Liz said, as she passed by with an armful of cups. “There's always something to do.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Helga said.
She wiped up some spilled ranch dressing from a side station, then helped Alejandro, the dishwasher, who Liz paid under the table due to his immigration status.
When she came back out to the floor, the couple and the family of four were ready for their checks. The grieving woman ordered a chocolate cake, and the six men had already eaten their rolls and left. The only thing left on the table was a gospel tract designed to look like a twenty-dollar bill that said, “I have a tip for you: call on the name of Jesus and you'll be saved.” Helga cleared the table quickly so she could turn the table for a new guest.
At the end of the night, Helga's feet throbbed and her whole body begged for a break. She tipped the bar and the bus boys double what she usually did. After giving forty dollars to Denise, all she had left was a pocket full of change, which she dropped into one of the local charity boxes by the register. She said goodbye to Harold, Alejandro, Denise, and Cole.
“See you tomorrow, Helga,” Liz muttered while counting the money from the register.
“I won't be here tomorrow. Jenny will be covering my shift.”
“Oh, okay. Well, enjoy your day off.”
“I told you everything would work out,” Helga said, pointing to the cash in Liz's hand.
“Yeah, good work tonight.”
Helga checked her watch. It was almost midnight. She hung her apron on a hook and left through the back door. She smoked one last cigarette beside the dumpster, and then reached in her pocket and pulled out the crumpled gospel tract. Suddenly, a bright luminescent light glowed from her hands. Her clothes became radiant. The wrinkles on her face became smooth. Her brown, rotten teeth whitened. She no longer felt soreness in her feet or aching in her joints. She threw the gospel tract into the dumpster, then began to laugh as her body lifted into the air towards the heavens.
Shawn Casselberry sees the world through stories. He's written fiction and nonfiction books, including "Strange Fire," a short story collection, and a dystopian fiction novel called "The Hemingway Bible" coming soon! He's the co-founder/editor for Story Sanctum and lives in the Chicago area with his wife Jen and their introverted dog Colin. You can check out more of his writing at: www.shawncasselberry.com.